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Italian Restaurant In Amazon's Spheres Nominated For James Beard Design Award

The Spheres at the base of Amazon's $4B Seattle headquarters have long stood out visually, but the restaurant inside one of the glass orbs has gotten its own moment in the sun.

Italian Restaurant In Amazon's Spheres Nominated For James Beard Design Award
The interior of Sea Creatures' restaurant Willmott's Ghost within Amazon's Spheres in Seattle

Seattle restaurant group Sea Creatures, run by the team of Renee Erickson and Jeremy Price, opened all-day Italian spot Willmott’s Ghost inside the Spheres in late October, and was nominated for a James Beard Foundation award for Best Restaurant Design in the 75 seats and under category March 27. The winners will be announced May 6.

To fit its rounded home, the 40-or-so-seat dining room is crescent-shaped, with nary a right angle to be found. The rounded bar and banquette complement each other in shape, color and material, with hanging lights in the shape of — you guessed it — spheres.

It was Amazon’s directive that Willmott’s Ghost be a breakfast-through-dinner establishment, which presented the challenge of creating an ambiance that is energizing during the day but cool and collected at night.

Though local firm Heliotrope Architects shared the nomination list as project architect, Heliotrope principal Mike Mora told Bisnow that the Sea Creatures team, through its sister company Price Erickson Interior Design, directed the vision for the project. Though co-owner and chef Erickson already has a Best Chef Northwest award under her belt for Whale Wins, this is the team's first nomination for design.

Price, the design lead on Willmott's Ghost and Sea Creatures' 21 other restaurants, doesn't consider the design award any different of an accomplishment from Erickson's honor. 

"Design is something we provide our customers just like food and hospitality, and we think of it in the same way,” Price said.

The design portion of Willmott's Ghost was a new challenge for Price Erickson; virtually all of the group's previous projects have been build-outs of old masonry buildings. The new construction and its unique shape were formal restrictions that, much like a sonnet for poets, could give rise to a new approach and new creativity.

“It’s definitely a departure from something that had been more comfortable, and we got to grow because of it," Price said. "We also talked about [constraints] with food, because with five different pieces of equipment you don’t know how to get started, but with just a hot plate or an oven, you have to paint within those lines.” 

Italian Restaurant In Amazon's Spheres Nominated For James Beard Design Award
Amazon's Spheres in Downtown Seattle at dusk, with Willmott's Ghost on the first floor

On restaurant 22, Price was somewhat grateful for being forced to try something outside of his comfort zone, though he was careful to note that he hadn't considered himself or Sea Creatures as a plateau.

“We’re in this [business] for a creative outlet more than anything else, and like anyone, we don’t want to do the same thing over and over again," Price said. "I can definitely empathize with the musician whose second album doesn’t sound like their first. Maybe you lose some guests, maybe you gain some new ones.”

If one were to look at the restaurant from above, one would see concentric circles making up the kitchen, the bar area, the walkway and the banquette. To fit such a rounded concept, Price designed the tables himself. He believes that his group's work within those constraints could have been what garnered them the James Beard nomination.

“It might just be the challenge of designing a restaurant in this glass dome, while still accomplishing the things a restaurant needs to accomplish in making people feel comfortable," Price said. "It’s a lot of glass, concrete — cold materials. That’s what we’re proud of, taking a space that feels like it’s on another planet and making it feel approachable.”

A Seattle restaurant being recognized for a national award is another source of pride for Price. Of the nine establishments nominated in the design categories, Willmott's Ghost is the only one outside of New York, Chicago or San Francisco.

“It feels like it might not be as straight a path for folks that live outside of the more recognized metropolitan areas to show up on these national awards,” Price said.

One of the crucial factors in democratizing the food scene beyond pure regional concerns is the rise of the internet and social media. The latter has been perhaps one of the greatest change agents in restaurant design; having an element that diners want to post on Instagram is now a concern Price has to account for. Rather than bemoaning the shifting tides, Price is thankful for it.

“We’re an example of this, but design has become more democratic, where people who aren’t necessarily trained as designers or architects are entering the conversation, which I think is exciting,” Price said.